The Sinking of the RMS Tayleur – author Gill Hoffs on how Victorian corsetry contributed to a tragedy…

Sinking of RMS Tayleur - Gill Hoffs - hi res imageI have been really lucky with the books I have been asked to review in recent weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed The Real Sherlock Holmes by Angela Buckley and now can honestly say I have spent three sunny days gripped by “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic‘” by Gill Hoffs. (Pen & Sword, 2014) I can heartily recommend it for the detailed research Gill has done into the Victorian period,  combined with her skills as a true storyteller. It is a tragic tale, beautifully told, with a respect for the victims that doesn’t preclude a thrilling description of a horrific shipwreck.

So I am delighted to host a guest post from Gill on my blog today. As she researched the book, Gill was curious to find out why only three women and three children survived out of over 170 while more than half of the men on board managed to escape the sinking ship. Here she interviews one of the many people who helped her research 

Jennifer Garside

Jennifer Garside

When researching a particular period or person, it can be useful to find someone who’s essentially carried out the work for you in advance and has a passion for the subject. I needed to know about British clothing in the 1850s, and why the fashions of the day contributed to the deaths of at least a hundred women in one shipwreck alone. Luckily Jennifer Garside, a motorbike-riding, corset-wearing, broadsword-fighting businesswoman, runs Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing (specialising in neo-Victorian designs) and agreed to help. Jennifer demonstrated to me using samples, contemporary accounts and illustrations, how heavy and restrictive the women’s outfits would have been on board the Tayleur, and how that influenced their survival when the ship wrecked. As is often the way, each answer led to yet more questions, including some about Jennifer herself.

What came first for you: the interest in sewing, history, or re-enactments? How did you get into re-enactments and corsetry?

I was always crafty as a child, my mother taught me to sew and use a sewing machine, and as far as I can remember I had a fascination with pretty historical dresses. My grandmother had a button tin with pictures of Victorian ladies round the outside; I loved to play with it both for the images on the tin and the amazing buttons inside. Re-enactment came later; it wasn’t until I was at university that I discovered a group and found it was something I could actually get involved in.

I blame my parents for the re-enactments. As a child, I loved to explore castles, and they took me to see a joust when I was about 8, and I decided I wanted to have a go! At University, I found both a re-enactment group, and a HEMA group (Historic European Martial Arts) and started to study swordsmanship. The corsetry was probably born out of my love of the beautiful hourglass Victorian dresses. I have always been small, but when I was about 18-20, I had a very boyish figure not the curves I wanted. I discovered corsetry and as I was a student and couldn’t afford to buy a good corset, thought I would try making them. It took a long time to teach myself as there weren’t the resources there are available now.

How do you source vintage designs?

Fashions of 1854

Fashions of 1854

There are a lot of good resources now for vintage patterning, you can still get hold of original patterns from the 1900s (I have some amazing 40s and 50s patterns that I picked up from ebay and junk shops!), as you get earlier, there are reprints of Victorian and Edwardian patterns from magazines that are reasonably easy to get hold of and lots of books available detailing construction. The earlier you get, the harder it is to find original material to study, but by studying pictures and the material that is available, it is possible to work out how these pieces were probably made. Where possible though, the best way I find to learn is to look at extant garments, most museums have the facility to let you study pieces in their collection if you contact them, and there is so much more you can learn by looking at something in person than by looking at a photo.

What are the hazards of your work?

CAD – Cat assisted design. My ginger mog has an annoying tendency to try to get involved at the most awkward times! Also, most of my work is carried out on a 1930’s Singer sewing machine that will sew through just about anything, including fingers as I have learnt the hard way.

Do you find you notice costuming over story and acting in period dramas?

Yes and no, if the story is good and I can lose myself in it, then I can forgive most things other than the totally glaringly obvious, but I will often find once I have noticed something I can’t concentrate on the plot as the error keeps niggling at me!

What is the one key issue you think researchers need to bear in mind when thinking about clothing in the past?

I think you have to understand somewhat the culture, mindset and conditions people were living in. It is only relatively recently that we have had mass production and global communication, therefore in the past although there would be fashions, there would be a lot more geographical variation in styles and each garment would be individually made. Clothes in any period of history say something about the wearer, be that status, profession or any of a myriad of other things.

How has engaging in broadsword fighting and similar activities improved your understanding of the practical requirements of outfits throughout history?

It’s not just the fighting, by wearing the clothes of a certain period you get a better understanding of how a person could move and how they would stand or sit. This may seem unimportant, but if you want to really understand the past I think this really gives you an insight. A simple example would be the footwork when learning to use the smallsword, the weapon itself looks similar to a modern fencing blade, but looking at the original treatises the steps and lunges tend to be much smaller than in modern fencing, you discover the probable reason why when you try fencing in period footwear with smooth leather soles!

Who are your favourite female fighters?

Jennifer Garside 2This is a difficult one too. All throughout history there are examples of often unnamed women fighting alongside their male counterparts, normally only uncovered as women after death or injury. I could list hundreds of inspirational female fighters, but I’ll limit myself to two from two historical extremes. The earliest known European fencing treatise is Royal Armouries MS.I.33 or the Tower Manuscript, this dates from about 1300 and shows a system of combat with sword and buckler (a small round shield). In the latter part of the manuscript, in place of one of the two male figures we see earlier in the text, we have a female figure referred to as Walpurgis. While there is still debate as to why a female figure is used in the text, I feel that her presence maybe indicates that females fighting wasn’t such an unusual occurrence as we might otherwise believe. Travelling forwards 600 years we have Edith Garrud, trained in Bartitsu (probably one of the first ‘mixed martial arts’), she in turn trained The Bodyguard, a group of about 25 women whose task it was to keep the leaders of the militant Suffragette movement out of the hands of the police. She is immortalised in a lovely 1910 Punch cartoon showing her fighting off a group of policemen.

Thank you for all your help with my research, and for sharing so much information about your enviable life!

And thank you Gill – it is a great book and I hope to be there at one of your entertaining talks before too long!

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: the Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen and Sword, 2014), is out now – see http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/ for further details. Contact Gill at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk, @GillHoffs or through http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com.
For more information about Wyte Phantom Corsetry and Clothing, visit http://www.rosenkavalier.co.uk/wytephantom/wytephantom4.htm, call 0774 686 4354, or email wyte_phantom@hotmail.com.

 

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